Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Fearing that the Jewish community now perceives him as hopelessly unsympathetic to Israel, President Obama has launched a Jewish charm offensive. Last week alone 15 Rabbis and 37 Jewish members of Congress were invited to the White House. The Rabbis met Presidential advisers while the Congressmen and Senators, all Democrats, got the real deal, a pitch from the President himself.
An invitation to the White House is a big deal and can play all kinds of tricks on people’s convictions, which might explain why so many of those who visited emerged with newfound praise for the President even though the Administration has changed none of its positions on Israel. The President is still demanding that Jews build no new homes in Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood that is entirely Jewish. He has yet to repudiate his Administration’s position that the Arab-Israeli conflict, and by implication Israeli intransigence, fuels the Taliban and other Arab extremists. And he has yet to apologize to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the humiliating treatment he dished out in March. Most of all, the President has not reversed his biased policy of apportioning the blame for the lack of movement in the peace process squarely on Israeli settlements rather than decades-old Arab refusal to accept Israel as a permanent and legitimate fact. We have yet to hear the President forcefully condemn the Hamas charter calling for the destruction of the State of Israel or the Palestinian Authority recently naming a public square after Dalal Mughrabi, who led 1978 Coastal Road terrorist massacre which killed 37 Israelis.
Still, some Rabbis seemed quite swayed. Rabbi Aaron Rubinger, for example, who runs a Conservative Synagogue in Orlando, said, “Our president is every bit as committed to Israel’s safety and security as any previous administration.” But those of us who have not yet curried enough favor with the President to be invited before his august presence can only but wonder what secrets were shared that might have won these leaders over as enthusiastic endorsers of Obama as Israel-friend-in-chief when there has been no discernable change in policy.
But even this praise pales beside the truly bizarre comments that came from, not unsurprisingly, Congressman Steve Rothman of New Jersey’s Ninth District. Rothman began by blaming the Republicans for misrepresenting Obama on Israel. “We discussed Iran, the situation in the Middle East, the efforts of the Republican Party to distort President Obama’s positions on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” So the President’s contemptible treatment of Israel’s Prime Minister, which earned universal scorn from virtually every corner of the American Jewish leadership, turned out to be, according to Rothman, just a canard dreamed up by the Republicans.
But Rothman went further with a comment that brought Presidential brownnosing to new heights. President Obama is, Rothman maintained, ‘the best president on U.S.-Israel military and intelligence cooperation in American history.” No doubt even President Obama, who has done his utmost to demonstrate to the Arabs that he repudiates George W. Bush’s unconditional support for Israel, was scratching his head Rothman declaring him the best friend Israel has ever had in the White House. One wonders whom the good Congressman might name as first runner-up. Jimmy Carter, perhaps?
Rothman would have been better off following the wise example of Senators Lieberman and Schumer who attended the President’s meeting but issued no statements afterward. They understood how knee-jerk declarations of support, without any discernable change in Presidential policy, would simply cost them credibility in the pro-Israel community across the United States.
Rothman is, of course, the same lawmaker, now running for reelection, who admonished me publicly to accept the presence of the Libyan Ambassador to the United Nations, Kaddafi’s personal envoy Muhammad Shalgam, living tax-free next door to me, saying, “I hope everyone will be appropriately good neighbors.”
Just recently, Libya was elected to the United Nations Council on Human Rights, making the council as big a joke as its predecessor from which the Bush Administration courageously withdrew to protest the inclusion of repressive states. The Obama Administration’s reaction was a little bit different. Asked by the media to comment on the stomach-turning spectacle of one of the world’s most brutal regimes being elected to a body that is meant to supervise other nations’ conduct on human rights, Ambassador Susan Rice said that it would be unhelpful to condemn Libya. “It is preferable to work from within to shape and reform a body with the importance and potential of the Human Rights Council, rather than to stay on the sidelines and reject it.”
And herein lies the problem with the President Obama. Simply stated, the man does not seem to hate evil. He continues to believe he can charm wicked regimes into doing good, that personal charisma can persuade tyrants to lay down their arms and beat their swords into ploughshares. This was the policy that the President first pursued with Iran and Ahmedenijad. It of course yielded no results, other than to embolden a vile regime who promptly stole an election and began to slaughter their own people it the streets. The President turned up the charm with Hugo Chavez with the result that the Venezuelan dictator has now become one of the President’s most strident critics.
Will the President and his advisers learn that charm offensives can never take the place of moral policy? All the smiles, hugs, and bows in the world are never going to soften tyrants who seek not the favor of the President of the United States but unchecked power over their oppressed citizenry.
The American Jewish community should not be so naïve as be charmed by words that are not matched by changes in policy. If the President wishes to win over American Jewry, he should know that we are a religion that places action before speech and character before personality. It is not charm that moves us but a robust, moral posture. Equating a thriving and free democracy like Israel with the Arab tyrannies that surround it is a misguided policy that even a White House invitation cannot obscure.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is founder of This World: The Values Network. He has just published ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ www.shmuley.com
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May 17, 2010 | 11:33 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Tempers are heating up in the New York City area over the plans by the American Society for Muslim Advancement and another Islamic group known as the Cordoba Initiative to build a $100 million, 13-story, Islamic cultural center and mosque just two blocks from Ground Zero. And if that were not inflammatory enough, the plan is to inaugurate the new center on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Other provocative aspects include the fact that the majority of the money will allegedly come from the Saudis and – you can’t make this up – the Ford Foundation. Furthermore, the Imam who helped found the Cordoba initiative after 9/11, Imam Feisel Abdul Rauf, is on record as telling CNN, right after the 9/11 attacks, “U.S. policies were an accessory to the crime that happened. We (the U.S.) have been an accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. Osama bin Laden was made in the USA.”
New Yorkers seem overwhelmingly opposed to the plan, comparing its insensitivity to the German government opening, say, a Bach appreciation museum right outside the Auschwitz death camp, or Toyota opening a car factory by the Arizona Memorial on the island of Oahu. On my radio show many families of 9/11 victims called in to condemn the plans as ‘a slap in the face,’ ‘highly insensitive,’ and ‘a despicable attempt to claim victory at the site where so many innocent Americans died.’
The issues at stake affect the very heart of American democracy. On the one hand it would be the height of insensitivity, not to say an outright provocation, for the Islamic community to build a giant Islamic shrine at the resting place of 3000 innocent Americans who were murdered by Islamic terrorists. On the other hand, America is a tolerant country that allows for the free worship of all its citizens and one bridles against the idea of preventing any mosque from being built.
I have a simple, elegant, and deeply moral solution. Let the Islamic Cultural Center be built. Let the mosque be included. But, the Muslim organizations building it should commit right now to making the principal focus of the building a museum depicting the rise of Islamic extremism, its hate-based agenda, and how it is an abomination to Islam. The museum would feature exhibits showing the major fomenters of Islamic hatred worldwide and the cultural and religious factors that have gained them so wide a following. It would have exhibitions on some of the terrible atrocities committed by these Islamic fundamentalists, focusing specifically on the slaughter at Ground Zero on 9/11. The Islamic Center would have a major exhibition on the evil of Osama bin Laden, detailing his crimes against humanity and the number of innocent people he has killed. Most importantly, the museum would repudiate these haters by showing how their actions are an abomination to authentic Islamic teaching and how every G-d-fearing Muslim has a responsibility to spit them out.
Who could possibly object to Muslims coming together to create a museum condemning growing Islamic intolerance and call Osama bin Laden, Hamas, and Hezbollah what they are – perversions of Islam that are defiling and destroying a great world religion.
If the groups building the Cultural Center and mosque are prepared to make this its focus they will have proven that they are not only enormously sensitive to the families of the victims who lost loved ones there, but that they are courageous voices who wish to take back their religion from the fiends who purport to represent it.
This is something that the German government has done extremely well since the holocaust. They have built memorials and museums that depict the rise of Nazism and how state organs such as the political establishment, the media, and business all facilitated and contributed to Hitler’s rise. Many of these government-sponsored exhibits go even further, exploring a German national character that was so subservient to and respectful of authority – and so dependent on strongmen to lead it – that it eagerly embraced the anti-Semitism of Hitler and became, in Daniel Goldhagen’s memorable phrase, ‘Hitler’s willing executioners.’
Without a similar degree of introspection, on the one hand, and widespread condemnation of Islamic terrorism on the other, Islam risks being taken over by fanatics who disgrace their faith by murdering in the name of Allah. Communities that are not self-critical always risk going off the deep end. They have no internal mechanism to weed out corruption. And an Islamic Center at Ground Zero dedicated to that deeply necessary and currently absent introspection would repudiate the terrorists who perpetrated the atrocity, honor the victims who died there, and serve as a powerful step toward G-d fearing and decent Muslims taking back their faith from the fanatics.
But it goes without saying that my opinion on the matter does not much matter. It is the victims’ families who must be consulted the Islamic groups on question first and foremost.
About fifteen years ago I visited the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp for the first time. I was taken aback by giant Christian crosses that dotted the deathly landscape. Wherever you looked there no Jewish symbols only Christian ones. I asked my close friend Prof. Jonathan Webber, one of the world’s leading authorities on Auschwitz and my guide at the camp, why there were so many Christian symbols when more than ninety-five percent of the people who died there were Jews. He explained to me that the Jewish response to Auschwitz was one of emptiness and silence. Something unspeakable and inexplicable had happened here. The horror was too great to capture, the meaninglessness of the act too profound to be justified with any kind of memorial. Jews did not want to give meaning to something so utterly meaningless. Indeed, Jewish theologians speak of the holocaust as a time of Hester Panim, the hiding of G-d’s presence. Hence, the Jewish community took the approach of leaving the slaughterhouse empty of symbolism or memorials. Christians might seek to redeem it, but some places remain unredeemable. The Jewish community discussed this with our Christian brothers and many of the Christian symbols were removed.
In the same way it behooved our Christian brothers to allow us Jews to choose to commemorate the extermination of our people in the manner we saw fit, it likewise behooves our Islamic brothers and sisters to approach the families of those who died on 9/11 and ask them how they wish the site to be commemorated. And if as a body they object to any kind of mosque being built there, then their wishes should be respected.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’ (Basic Books) www.shmuley.com.
May 10, 2010 | 10:31 am
Posted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
Pity Jeremy Ben-Ami, the hapless head of J-Street, the we-condemn-Israel-constantly-because-of-how-much-we-love-it lobby.
In the recent tension between the Obama Administration and the Jewish state over Jews building in Jerusalem, the pro-Israel camp was represented by Elie Wiesel whose full-pages ads in major American newspapers criticized President Obama’s ban on Jews living anywhere in the holy city. The letter, as with everything Wiesel writes, was haunting, stirring, and deeply personal. “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem… The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem.”
The letter, by one of America’s most celebrated citizens, caused such angst in the White House that President Obama changed his schedule to invite the Nobel Peace laureate to a private kosher lunch in order not to appear out of sync with the Jewish prophet. Like Lyndon Johnson who panicked when he lost Walter Cronkite over Vietnam, Obama understood that losing Wiesel over his Middle East policy spelled almost certain doom.
But while the President behaved courteously, Ben-Ami did precisely the opposite. Not content with Judaism’s greatest living personality having the last word, the J-Street head quickly went into action and responded to Wiesel with full page ads of a bizarre editorial by Yossi Sarid, the former Meretz politician, utterly unknown to the American public whom Ben-Ami is seeking to influence. The man who Oprah travelled to Auschwitz with and chose his book Night as a main selection of her book club and whose novels are studied in the world’s leading Universities was dismissed by Sarid as being a writer ignorant of current events. “You know much about the heavenly Jerusalem but less so about its counterpart here on earth.”
Sarid was only getting started. Next he accused Wiesel of being naïve and easily misled. ‘Someone has deceived you, my dear friend.’ Sarid’s friendship would intensify two paragraphs later when he accused the man revered around the world as humanity’s most eloquent voice for the oppressed as a religious fanatic ‘imbuing our current conflict with messianic hues.’ Finally, not content with his dismissal of Wiesel as ignorant, naïve, and fanatical, he couldn’t help himself but conclude that Wiesel is not only confused but intentionally sought to mislead and misinform others. ‘It is unfortunate that a man of your standing must confuse fundamental issues and confound the reader.’
How unfortunate that Ben-Ami and Sarid were not able to forewarn the gullible American president not to invite the ignorant holocaust survivor to lunch and to instead send Air Force One to pick up the encyclopedic, peace-loving, temperate Sarid instead!
Which brings me back to Jeremy Ben-Ami, whom I would now like to address directly.
“Jeremy, my dear Jewish brother. Since the launch of J-Street not long ago you have tried hard, like any effective CEO, to make a name for your organization and capture headlines. The method you have used, however, appears to involve a cavalcade of insults and attacks. And while this has worked in the short term, knowing just a little bit about PR myself, I am fairly certain that it will backfire in the long run.
“Last September I wrote a column commenting on your quotations in a New York Times Magazine feature where you insulted all staunch American Jewish supporters of Israel as paranoids who believe that the world is filled with murderous anti-Semites. Surely that kind of character assassination is not only unnecessary but, I would argue, indicative of significant insecurity about your message. Not that I blame you. I realize that you have the most difficult job of any Jewish organizational head in the world, namely, running an organization that purports to be pro-Israel but invariably finds itself in the company of Israel’s worst enemies and critics.
“But even so I never believed that someone as media-savvy as you would make the mistake of spending your valuable money on full pages ads attacking Elie Wiesel. That, my brother, is pure suicide.
“I twice hosted Prof. Wiesel at Oxford University for public lectures where more than 2000 non-Jewish students hung on his every word. I took him to lecture at the Mormon Church in Utah where thousands more felt awed to simply stand in the same room as him, and just a few months ago I hosted him in New York City on a panel with my friends Dr. Mehmet Oz and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark at a seminar on values where you could hear a pin drop from the more than one thousand people who stood in line to hear him. In each of these forums people from all walks of life came to bask in the light of the man regarded as the most courageous living voice for victims of hatred and genocide. He is regarded by most as a living saint, and his books, especially Night, are among the most influential literature of modern times. You might as well take out full pages ads savaging Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and the Dalai Lama.
“I suggest that whoever is your PR consultant, my friend, be fired immediately and that you recalibrate your message to simply criticize Israel, which J-Street has done with considerable success, rather than attack the voice of the six million which has, predictably, brought an avalanche of condemnation of protest both in print and all over the internet.
“And Jeremy, my dear brother, please be advised that while my advice is free, Wiesel’s words are priceless.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, is publishing, this week, his new book ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’(Basic Books). His website is www.shmuley.com.